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The broken lives of Nigeria's gay law suspects

Video credit: Reuters Studio
Published on February 24, 2020 - Duration: 04:14s

The broken lives of Nigeria's gay law suspects

From beatings to lost jobs: men arrested at a birthday party two years ago, accused of being gay, say their punishments have already begun.

David Doyle reports.

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The broken lives of Nigeria's gay law suspects

Strained relationships, lost jobs and violence: for 47 men due to stand trial in Nigeria under an internationally condemned law criminalizing homosexuality, the punishment has already begun.

These are the stories of some of the men whose lives have been torn apart after a birthday party late one night in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) ONYEKA OGUAGHAMBA, GAY LAW SUSPECT, SAYING: "I can't understand what is happening..." Father-of-four Onyeka Oguaghamba says he was sleeping in his car, having driven three customers to the Kelly Ann Hotel in Lagos, when people began streaming out of the building.

He didn't know why.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) ONYEKA OGUAGHAMBA, GAY LAW SUSPECT, SAYING: "I just opened the door and start running like others." He was arrested by armed police who had burst into the compound acting, according to the Lagos state police commissioner, on a tip-off that young men were being initiated into a "homosexual club".

The impact was swift; after two weeks in police detention he was fired from the job as a bookkeeper he had held for eight years.

Oguaghamba, who insists he is not gay, says he has struggled to pay his rent and his landlord is threatening to throw the family out - and relations with his wife, Juliette, have also been strained.

While he was in prison, Juliette was forced to send protection money to an inmate to spare Oguaghamba the beatings he says were given to others arrested that night.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) ONYEKA OGUAGHAMBA, GAY LAW SUSPECT, SAYING: "She is still asking me why will all these things... She suffered a lot to bail me out, she will go there and they will talk a lot of things you know and when I came back it's like we started having issues." (SOUNDBITE) (English) SMART JOEL, GAY LAW SUSPECT, SAYING: "The two of them went away with my phone." Smart Joel now lives in fear.

He says he's been beaten up three times by gangs of men who recognize him from an August 2018 video of a press conference, after the police raid, which went viral.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) SMART JOEL, GAY LAW SUSPECT, SAYING: "Some guys just came in my neighborhood [...] and told me you this gay guy that was arrested, so you mean you still can walk freely on the road, and then the two of them went away with my phone, my wrist watch, the money I had on me, my ATM card." He says customers have deserted the laundry business that he runs from the home he shares with his mother and four sisters and that the family is now struggling to pay bills and buy food.

Before the arrest Joel says it was the police who made him scared, saying they would arrest you to extort money.

Such claims are supported by international rights campaigners, and have been repeatedly denied by the police.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) JAMES BURUTU, PARTY HOST, SAYING: "They don't want to hear anything about gay issues and all that." Most of those arrested had gathered for James Burutu's birthday.

When the raid took place, he was still getting ready in a hotel room and was not arrested, but it still changed his life.

He was asked to leave the house he shared with his elder sister and her husband and, like others, he's lost his job.

(SOUNDBITE) (English) JAMES BURUTU, PARTY HOST, SAYING: "My company told me that knowing that that was my birthday party that police came into and then they said it was gay party, that why did the police just come into the hotel and said it was a gay party, that I know the way Nigeria is that they don't want to hear anything about gay issues and all that, that if I continue working with them it will be a threat to the company, that I should go." The Lagos police force is yet to disclose what its officers saw during the raid that led to the charges of public displays of same-sex affection against the arrested men.

57 were arrested that night.

47 have pleaded not guilty and arrest warrants have been issued for the 10 others who failed to appear in court.

The Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which came into force in 2014, targets not only same-sex unions but homosexual relationships in general with prison terms of up to 14 years.

Since an arraignment in November, a judge has adjourned the case three times because prosecution lawyers were unable to produce their witnesses.

The judge has threatened to throw the case out at the next hearing in March if witnesses are not produced.

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